NATO and Missile Defence

Speech by NATO Deputy Secretary General Ambassador Alexander Vershbow at the 2013 RUSI Missile Defence Conference, London – 12 june 2013

  • 12 Jun. 2013 -
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  • Last updated: 12 Jun. 2013 14:55

Professor Clarke,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

This annual conference is a major venue for discussing what has rapidly become one of the critical security challenges of our time.  Secretary General Rasmussen was very pleased to be one of the keynote speakers two years ago.  I am honored to represent NATO this year, and I want to thank RUSI and all of you for having me.

I believe we have gone well beyond the point where you would expect me to argue extensively why NATO is focusing on missile defence.  NATO takes collective defence seriously.  Missile threats to our Alliance territory and populations are real and growing.  Our defence against these threats must be real, too, and able to adapt to the threat in the future.  And that’s the approach we are taking.

So what I want to do this morning is to give you a quick update on our missile defence work within NATO over the past year.  I then also want to discuss our continuing effort to interest Russia in working with us in this area.  And of course, my colleague, Roberto Zadra, will go into more detail on that subject this afternoon.

First, where are we within NATO?  Well, we’re generally on track.  We have several strands of work going on at the same time – political, operational and technical.  Occasionally we have a bump in the road that we need to remove or simply bypass, but that’s what you would expect with such a complex undertaking.

Just over a year ago, at our NATO Summit in Chicago, we declared an Interim Capability for our NATO missile defence.  This now offers protection to our Allies in Southern Europe.  It includes NATO command and control assets; a US forward-based radar located in Turkey under NATO’s operational control; and the availability of a US ship equipped with interceptors capable of intercepting short- and medium-range ballistic missiles.  This was a first, but very significant milestone.

Since Chicago, work has continued.  We expect to declare an Initial Operating Capability in a few years and achieve our ultimate goal of Full Operational Capability early next decade.  This will then provide full coverage and protection for all NATO European populations, territory and forces that we committed to achieve at the 2010 Lisbon Summit.

One important priority this past year has been to enhance our NATO command and control arrangements for this mission.  We need to make sure that Allies are able – at all times – to exercise full political control, while allowing for swift military action when necessary.

There are several other important principles that will continue to underpin our work.  There is a clear and agreed understanding among the Allies that missile defence can complement the deterrent role of nuclear weapons, but not replace those weapons.  We continue to assess the potential threats posed by missile proliferation on a regular basis, so we can adapt our missile defence plans if necessary.  And we obviously want to ensure good governance and keep costs under control.

We also remain prepared to engage with third states, to enhance transparency and confidence, and to increase missile defence effectiveness.  And we are looking closely at the possible consequences for third states of any NATO action to intercept or engage incoming missiles. 

There is one other, key, feature of our missile defence work that I wish to emphasise.  It has been, and will remain, true transatlantic teamwork – in the best NATO tradition.  Many different assets, from several different European Allies, are being brought together with sizeable US assets to deliver a common, integrated and shared NATO capability.

The Netherlands has announced plans to upgrade four air-defence frigates with a missile defence radar.  France plans to develop an early-warning capability and long-range radar.  Germany and The Netherlands have offered Patriot missile batteries.  Germany is hosting the NATO command-and-control system at Ramstein.  Turkey, Romania, Poland and Spain have all agreed to host US contributions to our NATO system.  And other Allies are expected to announce additional contributions.

In sum, our work on missile defence demonstrates a strong commitment, on both sides of the Atlantic, to address emerging security challenges.  It is also an excellent example of what we call Smart Defence – Allies working together to deliver a critical capability that they would be unable to deliver individually. 

So much for our internal NATO work on missile defence.  So where do we stand with our efforts to engage Russia? 

Quite frankly, not very far along from where we stood nearly three years ago when we and the Russians agreed, at the highest level,  at Lisbon to discuss pursuing missile defence cooperation.  Russia remains very skeptical – both about NATO’s missile defence plans, and about the merits of working together to meet the growing missile threat to all our nations. 

Last year, at our Chicago Summit, in addition to declaring an Interim Capability for our Alliance missile defence, NATO leaders also made a strong political commitment that our system will not undermine strategic stability or Russia’s strategic deterrence capabilities.

Even without that guarantee, the facts should have really convinced Russia that NATO missile defence plans pose no danger to its strategic forces.  NATO’s missile defence is specifically aimed at defending against limited ballistic threats from outside the Euro-Atlantic area, not from Russia.  The technical capabilities, the planned numbers, and the locations of our interceptors mean that our system simply cannot pose a threat to Russia.

Even if deployed in a different geographic configuration and in larger numbers, it would be no match for the many hundreds of sophisticated ICBMs that are still available in Russia’s inventory.  This has been long recognized by many independent Russian experts and retired general officers for whom this is basic rocket science.  They know that the Russian official claims about the threat allegedly posed by NATO’s missile defence system require that one suspend the laws of physics!

Any remaining ambiguity about these facts should have been removed by the US decision earlier this year to reprioritise its missile defence plans, and to cancel Phase 4 of the European Phased Adaptive Approach.  This was the specific phase Russia claimed would have significantly degraded its strategic deterrent.  That assertion was unsupported by the facts but, given the Russian perception, one would have expected the US decision to open a way to cooperation.  Regretfully, that didn’t happen.  And there is a growing sense in NATO that every time we remove one perceived hurdle, Russia simply erects another.

Our goal in NATO remains a combined missile defence architecture that can protect both the Alliance and Russia.  It would include a very high level of integration and day-to-day interaction between the NATO and Russian systems, while maintaining their separate chains of command.

This combined architecture would enable NATO to fulfil its responsibility to protect Alliance territory.  Russia would be able to protect Russian territory.  And both of us would enjoy the benefits of mutually reinforcing capabilities.  In essence, it would preserve NATO’s collective defence obligations as well as Russia’s territorial sovereignty – and those are both important principles.

We also continue to believe that connecting our individual missile defence systems into a common NATO-Russian endeavour would be best implemented through the two joint centres that we have proposed:   The first, the NATO-Russia Data Fusion Centre, is where NATO and Russian officers would monitor together the intelligence picture, and share early warning data and other information 24/7.  The second, the NATO-Russia Planning and Operations Centre, is where we would actually plan together and coordinate our missile defence operations. 

Let me stress the significance of what NATO has proposed for the second centre.  The idea is for NATO and Russian officers to work together, on a full-time basis, to develop plans for intercepting missiles that may be launched against either party in a range of scenarios.  The centre would develop concepts of operations, rules of engagement and pre-planned responses for coordinated missile defence operations that could be implemented in the event of an actual attack. 

This would offer an extraordinary degree of “jointness,” even though the missile intercepts would be carried out through each party’s separate command and control systems.  But there would be substantial cooperation at every stage of the intercept process, and this could greatly enhance the effectiveness of our combined missile defence capabilities.

NATO leaders also proposed at Chicago to develop transparency measures about NATO and Russia’s respective missile defence plans to provide a maximum degree of predictability.  We remain convinced that, by cooperating with NATO on these proposals, Russia would get the best possible insights and assurances about our plans and intentions; and that working with NATO in the two joint centres would give the strongest guarantee that our system is not directed against Russia. 

As far as we in NATO are concerned, all this remains on the table.  Our dialogue with Russia continues, and that, at least, is a good thing.  But every time we meet, Russia tells us that it still perceives our developing NATO’s missile defence as a threat to its strategic deterrent, and that only legally binding guarantees can change that perception.

NATO has given political guarantees at the highest level.  These were not given lightly and demonstrate NATO’s sincerity.  Legal guarantees and new treaties are not on the cards; moreover, I would argue that they would not solve the real problem, which is a fundamental lack of trust.  Greater trust and confidence do not just appear out of thin air, and neither can they be codified.  They require a genuine political will to invest in each other’s sense of security.  It requires Russia to jettison Cold War stereotypes, once and for all, that still portray NATO as a threat and an adversary.

Let me make one final point, but it is a most important one.  We in NATO have always regarded missile defence cooperation as a possible game-changer for our relationship with Russia.  It is a real opportunity to raise our partnership to the strategic level that NATO and Russia pledged to achieve in Lisbon two and a half years ago.

I sincerely believe that is still possible.  Missile defence cooperation makes eminent sense – for political, practical and military reasons.  It would not only totally transform the NATO-Russia partnership.  It would also bring greater stability and security to the entire Euro-Atlantic area.

Ladies and Gentlemen,
We are making good progress with our missile defence work in NATO.  We will continue to seek closer cooperation with Russia.  And we remain confident that we can allay all of Russia’s concerns if Russia is genuinely committed to cooperate with us.

I believe there is still a window of opportunity for us to agree to cooperate.  But that window won’t be open forever.  Russia must now decide if it wants to work with us on this issue at all.   

If Russia doesn’t want to cooperate, then it will be a huge missed opportunity.  But life will go on.  We will move ahead with NATO missile defence as planned, because it is critical to the collective defence of our people and our territories in this 21st century.  And I trust our Russian friends will understand that.